Teacher – Singer Partnership
An article by Gilles Denizot
Many aspiring singers do not understand the process of vocal studies. They do not know how to respect and enhance the partnership between teacher and student, yet they expect the teacher to fix almost everything in an hour. Renata Tebaldi said in 1991: ‘In one hour, one cannot accomplish miracles, and some people ask you to rebuild a voice.’ No one is forced to study singing. Then ‘how can I gain full benefit from my vocal studies?’ and ‘how can I provide a better voice instruction?’ The answer is ‘by improving and allowing a more respectful approach of the teacher-singer partnership.’
Investment of Time and of Energy in the Process
Building and training a classical voice takes years. This process requires investment of time and energy on both sides. The student and the teacher both have to learn patience, identify the goal, and work towards it. Let me repeat the most important word: PATIENCE. Some students genuinely think they can achieve ‘stardom’ or teaching skills after a few lessons. Other students want to sing in great international venues but will not consider traveling for lessons. They want to find the ideal teacher right around the corner. This is living in fantasy. Best results come from consistent study and quiet yet constant determination. You will certainly experience various levels; you will even have the feeling that you are not improving. If you trust your teacher’s competence and your personal investment as well as the reasonable goal you have decided upon you should not doubt to be achieving it. But it won’t happen overnight. As Regina Resnik said in 1992: ‘I am very interested in the young singers that one pushes in the career in an atmosphere of total indifference, without the support nor the advices of the old Maestri. They do not possess the patience and the necessary discipline anymore, they believe to open up the paths of glory with 1 or 2 years of studies’.
I often see students wanting to change teachers as soon as they have failed an audition or a competition rather than questioning their choice of repertoire or amount of self-preparation. This is an immature attitude. Professional singers are able to quietly admit the existence of a problem, to establish the issues to be addressed and to work with their teacher and coach. I am amazed at the numbers of messages written on various Internet discussion groups by distressed students who ask the opinion of complete strangers. When they have a panel of answers (without having sung for their correspondents) they choose the easiest solution and think that they have been helped. This is irresponsible. The student lacks trust in the process and the teacher apparently is not committed enough in the student’s problems. Obviously the ‘teacher-student partnership’ must be inadequate, if such questions are raised on the Internet and not in the voice studio. Antonietta Stella said in 1999: ‘I can always tell some singers that they are on the wrong track, they will always find a sufficiently dishonest professor to accept them while letting them believe in a future.’ A true vocal training requires trust, and trust requires time.
Being Punctual and Ready to Sing
It might seem odd to mention that being punctual and ready to sing or to teach is a basic condition. I know and fully understand that anyone can occasionally be late. What I am referring to are students who come late, always, and are not ready to sing. When they’ve arrived, they apologize, hang their coat, install their recording device, prepare their scores and pencil, drink some water, quiet their breath down because most of them have rushed to the studio. When we start vocalizing, half an hour might well be gone. Too bad. Teachers also have to respect their student’s time and give them their full attention. I know teachers who answer phone calls while ‘teaching’ or can’t stop sharing their career memories. I strongly disapprove these behaviors and I pity the students who are forced to deal with such ‘teachers’.
Preparing the Lesson
Being punctual and ready to sing or to teach also means that one has prepared the lesson. When I am teaching I have carefully thought about each student prior the lesson. I am ‘ready for them’ when I greet them. I am looking forward to seeing them and to resuming our vocal work. I am convinced that some students notice and appreciate this approach. Those are the ones who also prepare their lesson. Those are the students who progress rapidly and securely towards becoming responsible and independent singers.
Defining Schedule and Priorities
Vocal training has to be somewhat planned. You should not stick to a rigid program, but you should also know what you have achieved and what needs to be accomplished. Students and teachers stay focused on their goal. They reach new levels and move forward. Before my own coaching sessions I always analyze the situation (by listening to recent recordings) and decide what needs to be improved. I narrow the list to the most important aspects and I work on these. I also inform my coach of what I would like to develop and train and, if appropriate, we work on my suggestions as well as his. Committed teachers prepare lessons. When the student meets the teacher, they really have defined their schedule and priorities.
The Sense of Continuity
Defining schedule and priorities both in studying and teaching allows for ‘continuity in the process’ to occur. When I tell a student: ‘last week, we have addressed this specific technical point and now I think it would be appropriate to address that subject’, I show them that we are in the middle of a highly structured process. A student has to understand and visualize the ‘pyramid of vocal training.’ It is important to see what has been accomplished. It is as important to see what remains to be explored. This prevents disillusion: ‘I am 21, I have been singing for 2 years with 4 different teachers and I still don’t understand why I cannot sing this aria.’ Maybe this aria is out of your reach because you have not yet acquired the essential skills to sing it. You have a problem on this high note, have you trained your Passaggio for a healthy and reliable vocal production? Do you feel the continuity of vocal studies when changing teachers so often?
Recording Work Sessions
A very important part of vocal studies and teaching is to listen to one’s sessions. I always record my sessions with my coach. I often record the lessons I give to my students. It is of the utmost importance that singers listen to their tapes and connect what they hear to what they have felt and done during the session. This is the only way to KNOW your sound and to reproduce the healthy singing and avoid the unhealthy one. Vocal concepts need to be established and it takes time. I once used a trick that helped me: I decided to listen to one tape a day, to sing over my own voice and to listen to my teacher’s comments. I pretended that I was indeed having a daily lesson with my teacher. I kept intact what I had learned until I met with him again. This was a temporary trick, I don’t need to use it anymore but what would I have done without the tapes?
Listening to Previous Sessions
When I work with my coach, I record every session and then listen to them. On the next session, I know what has already been achieved and I move further very quickly. It allows me to really match my sensations with the correct and healthy sound. We don’t hear ourselves as others do and there is no other solution for a serious singer, whether professional or amateur, than to record and listen to work sessions, and move further. Being an active and committed teacher, I am absolutely convinced that recording and listening to specific sessions allows for the adjustment of teaching tools. I take notes on my students’ progress and write down what should be done next as well as repertoire suggestions. Evidently when I meet with these students again I can quickly summarize and comment our previous session. I also choose the most adapted exercises for them based on a cold analysis of their voice on tape rather than on the excitement of the lesson.
There cannot be progress, at least a reasonable one, without practice. Ideally we need to practice daily, at least three twenty-minute sessions. On a year-round basis there must be a technical routine of at least ten minutes daily. Committed singers will always find this minimal time to work on their voice. You cannot expect to use your voice if you don’t train it. In order for proper and efficient muscular reactions to happen, you literally need to discover and train the muscles. This does not happen while sleeping. Without practice, there is virtually no purpose attending voice lessons because nothing new will happen. Teachers cannot practice for students and they will merely be repeating what was previously said. A dedicated teacher will try to find new approaches and ideas, but they will all inevitably fail to produce results. Amusing enough is the fact that lazy students often blame the teacher for the absence of results. This situation rapidly evolves towards sterility and it is best to quit studying altogether.
Appropriate Study Material
Vocal study is also about researching vocal scores, articles, and recordings between lessons. The Internet is an invaluable source of knowledge. You can study facial postures of great singers on videos and listen to their recordings, print scores and read articles. This is of great importance as it feeds the student with information. Discovering your own repertoire, studying a complete operatic score rather than your isolated aria, reading poetry (preferably in the original language) will not give you a trained voice, but it is part of being an accomplished singer. I often have to explain the plot of the opera, or the meaning of the poetry, to students. Although I enjoy doing this it nevertheless shows a lack of involvement on the student’s side. I remember an anecdote when working on Wagner with Sir Donald McIntyre. I was about the start when Sir Donald asked me to explain the opera. When I began, Sir Donald stopped me and said: ‘I see that you clearly know what you are going to sing!’ and we started working on the music.
A great Master in Philosophy once wrote to a disciple: ‘After having granted your friendship, it is necessary to have confidence; it is before that one should judge. One reverses the natural order of duties, when one judges after having given friendship instead of giving friendship after making one’s opinion. Reflect for a long time to know if you must choose someone for friend. But when your decision is taken, love your friend with all your heart: speak to your friend as freely as with yourself.’ Seneca was not wrong, and one could very well apply this advice to the ‘teacher-singer’ partnership.
© OperaLab Gilles Denizot – All Rights Reserved